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April 2021Vol. 22, No. 4Seeking Equity Calls Us to Cultural Humility

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

"Not only are Black children the most likely to enter the child welfare system but they also fare the worst under the state's supervision. Black children have the greatest odds of being removed from their homes and the smallest chance of being either reunited with their parents or adopted. They spend the most time in foster care and receive the least helpful services."—Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2015, p. 13-14)

The movement toward prevention and racial equity requires a deep examination of the harm that children—particularly Black and Native American/Alaska Native children—have experienced in the child welfare system and an intentional adoption of culturally responsive services driven by the needs and expertise of children, youth, and families. Over time, the field has shifted from promoting the concept of cultural competence to exploring more comprehensive and responsive approaches. The term cultural competence can imply that full proficiency in another culture is an achievable goal and runs the risk of suggesting those who share culture have identical experiences. On the other hand, cultural humility assumes that others are experts in their own culture, culture is multifaceted, there are structural factors that influence people differently, and people hold multiple cultural and social identities.

Cultural Humility in Practice

Cultural humility shifts the focus from knowledge acquisition ("How are other cultures different from my own?") to a deeper exploration of power, norms, and values ("How can I ask the right questions to better understand how cultural and social identities are affecting the families I'm helping?") (Fisher-Borne et al., 2015).

When woven into practice, cultural humility includes an examination of one's own biases, open dialogue with families, and proactive efforts to level the playing field and address systemic inequities. While race and culture are not synonymous, cultural humility with a racial equity lens can help address the stark racial disparities in the system and promote attention to the intersections of race and other cultural identities. 

The following cultural humility practice principles (adapted from the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute [2019] and Ortega & Faller [2011]) can help engage youth, families, and colleagues:

  • Commit to lifelong learning. Educating yourself about the history of the child welfare system and its harmful impact on families of color is a necessary step toward reducing disproportionality and becoming a prevention-oriented, family-centered system.
  • Use a wide lens. People can hold multiple identities (racial, ethnic, social, religious, and more), which intersect in individual ways. Viewing others through a narrow lens of assumptions about their cultural identity limits our ability to see them as whole and complex.
  • Be open. The intersection of multiple identities leads to a variety of experiences and impacts opportunities. Step back and consider how these experiences and opportunities (or perhaps lack thereof) might differ from your own.
  • Reserve judgment. Majority (or dominant) cultures may be perceived as better than others. Think about—and avoid—placing more value on some cultures over others.
  • Communicate. Allow people to describe their experience in their own words. Engage in active and reflective listening.
  • Stay curious. Commit to cultural humility as a critical and ongoing part of your standard practice, in which you consistently seek to understand other perspectives.
  • Challenge yourself. Use self-reflection to understand and challenge your own biases and internal barriers to learning from others.
  • Partner. Work to level the playing field by authentically partnering with youth and families. Acknowledge and try to mitigate the power differential between youth, families, and systems that represent authority and expertise.
  • Build on assets. Focus on youth and family assets and strengths. Acknowledge and work against systemic barriers to opportunity.

The Role of Leaders

Agency leaders can consider the following ways to embed cultural humility into practice through training, coaching, and organizational change:

  • Prioritize cultural humility by consulting with youth and families, addressing structural barriers, embedding practice into policy, and reallocating funds to make practice possible at the direct service level.
  • Engage youth, families, community partners, and staff in assessing the organizational environment, policies, procedures, knowledge, and skills in order to identify areas for growth.
  • Model and normalize cultural humility as an ongoing process as opposed to an outcome. Cultural humility assumes that you don't have—and never will have—all the answers.
  • Build relationships with staff, community partners, youth, and families that are respectful, authentic, and reciprocal and that strive to proactively address power differentials. Expect and empower staff to do the same.
  • Provide professional development, coaching opportunities, and incentives for staff to develop an understanding of institutional racism, intersectional identities, implicit and systemic bias, and how dominant cultural values shape social norms.
  • Work in teams and one-on-one to build and strengthen cultural humility in practice through role plays, open-ended questions, and activities designed to prompt self-reflection and critical thinking.

Moving Forward

As a field, we are called toward better outcomes for the children, youth, and families we serve. Understanding and reckoning with the child welfare system's roots and its role in historical trauma is a necessary first step. Moving closer to an equitable system that strengthens families instead of separating them requires a new kind of partnership, built on the assumption that youth and families are experts in themselves. Organizations committed to changing outcomes are considering different ways of doing business and dedicating concrete resources and time to embed cultural humility into agency norms, values, and practice.


Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J. M., & Martin, S. L. (2015). From mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural competence. Social Work Education, 34(2), 165-181.

National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2019). Cultural humility practice principles.

Ortega, R. M., & Faller, K. C. (2011). Training child welfare workers from an intersectional cultural humility perspective: A paradigm shift. Child Welfare 90(5), 27-49.

Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Civitas Books.